PHOTO BY KATIE NOBLE
When children arrive at Small Farm, they know right where to go. “I’ll see a car pull up and a little kid get out and make a beeline for the orange bear and the morning glory teepee,” Barbara Sipler, one of Small Farm’s owners says. “Children are amazing in a garden.”
Barbara and I are sitting with Dwight Sipler, Barbara’s husband, the other owner of Small Farm, at a picnic table behind the farm stand. Beyond us are rows and rows of dark green and leafy vegetables, flanked by wavering sunflowers and sparkling snapdragons. The morning glory teepee, not blooming yet, is surrounded by pickable herbs. The cherry tomato maze is just showing signs of color, yellows and reds and the occasional purples. Visitors walk with scissors amongst the blue, pink, and yellow flowers. Barbara leaves for a moment to chat with a customer, and I’m struck by the colorful tranquility of the farm.
Though located on busy Route 62 in Stow, Massachusetts, Small Farm offers an oasis for picking tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. It’s not just the children who appreciate the simplicity and warmth that Small Farm offers its visitors. People of all ages make Small Farm a destination. “People come and bring their lunches,” Barbara says.
When the Siplers started Small Farm in 1988, Dwight was still doing upper atmosphere research at MIT. They had a house and an acre of land on Great Road in Stow. When their lawn mower died, Dwight replaced it with a tractor. “Since we had a tractor, we rented some land and grew pumpkins.” Somehow they sold the pumpkins, Dwight says, and “somehow, that suckered us in.” That was when they named the farm. “Small Farm on Great Road had kind of a ring to it,” Dwight says.
The next year they rented two more acres and grew more pumpkins, winter squash, gourds, tomatoes, peppers, and corn. Barbara gestures to Dwight, “He did the hard labor, but I did a lot because I was home all day.” Dwight’s job was flexible; he was able to go to work early and then farm in the afternoon.
As Small Farm’s crop expanded along with its sales, the Siplers discovered that people were willing to pay 99 cents a pound for decorative gourds but only 25 cents per pound for winter squash. That’s when the Siplers learned that over 90% of farmers have to work a second or third job in order to support themselves and their families.
“Some things grew and some things didn’t,” Dwight says. Every year, they experimented with crops, learning more and more about farming. In 1992, the Siplers bought a 24-plus acre farm on Gleasondale Road (Route 62) with about five acres of cultivable land. After a year spent clearing the land, they began planting more and more vegetables. Initially, they kept the farm stand at their house on Great Road, but in 1999, moved all farm operations to Gleasondale Road.
The farm started out organic by pure neglect, according to Dwight. He didn’t have the time to keep up with the classes required to use the more dangerous, but more effective, registered pesticides. Small Farm is now considered a non-certified organic farm, and Dwight says they only spray crops with products that are approved by the organic community. “Every year the farmer faces a crop failure,” Barbara says. Small Farm lost 50% of its tomatoes to late blight in 2009 and 30% of its tomatoes the following year. In 2014, they lost their basil plants. “It’s not a perfect life,” Barbara says.
Although customers can pick almost anything grown on the farm, including lettuce, peppers, beets, onions, leeks, eggplant, bok choy, cabbage, and 15 different herbs, the real draw, according to Barbara, is the tomato. Last summer they grew 13 varieties. “Everyone wants to pick tomatoes. There aren’t enough to sell at the stand so we don’t allow people to pick them until they really start cranking. We try to plant early enough so the tomatoes will start early,” Barbara says.
Even the children love the tomatoes. Every year Dwight builds a simple cherry tomato maze. Children and their parents pick from 20 different cherry tomato varieties while meandering toward the orange bear sculpture in its center. Why a bear? For the first few years, the maze’s center was empty. Barbara saw a nice bronze pig for sale but didn’t want to pay the asking price of $45,000. So when a local florist offered her a white polar bear sculpture made of fiberglass and plaster and big enough for kids to climb on, she grabbed it. Dwight paints it a different color every year or so. It’s been purple, yellow, blue, and most recently, orange.
Eventually, Barbara told Dwight that she was tired of tomatoes and wanted to grow flowers. So, Dwight planted seeds, and the farm began giving away flowers when customers bought tomatoes. The following summer, they began charging for the flowers, one dollar for a canning jar bouquet. Then one day someone wanted some flowers, but Barbara didn’t have time to pick them, and she encouraged the customer to pick the flowers herself. What started as a simple request has turned into 15 to 20 percent of the farm’s business. People come to the farm to pick from the 80 varieties of flowers as well as the vegetables and herbs. “People get flowers for showers, parties, hospitalizations, and weddings,” Barbara says. “Flowers are a bond.”
Starting a farm is like stepping into the old world, before computers existed, Barbara says. “Farmers are willing to share information, equipment, knowledge, good will, seeds, supplies. … It’s a wonderful community.” As I tour the farm’s fields and barn, I see physical evidence of such a community: an old lettuce spinner from neighboring Applefield Farm is used to spin Small Farm’s triple washed lettuce; an old beverage cooler from Carlisle’s Great Brook State Farm stores some of the farm’s tomatoes; and hives are kept on the farm by community beekeepers. A nearby farmer who had to close her farm last summer due to a bout with Lyme disease stops by with summer squash. “How much do you want for it?” Barbara asks. “Oh, whatever you want to give me,” the farmer says. She later returns with a jar of zucchini relish for Barbara.
What Barbara adds to the farm in hospitality, Dwight adds in ingenuity. Whether it’s a cooler made from an air conditioning unit for the barn, a bumper for the truck made from a log, a morning glory teepee for kids to crawl into, or a maze of cherry tomatoes, if they need something, Barbara says, “We don’t buy it, he invents it.” This summer, Dwight is building a fence similar to one they saw at a children’s museum in California. Made of bicycle wheels, the fence will be adorned with morning glories and thunbergia (black-eyed Susan vine).
As we talk, we are occasionally interrupted by one of the farm’s parttime workers with questions about the day-to-day operations. There are six farm workers and two cashiers—including a few Boy Scouts—Daisy (the farm’s very own octogenarian), and Amanda (Dwight’s cousin). “We have a wonderful staff,” Barbara says. “We have kids working to save money for college. We have kids trying to decide what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives.”
Throughout the season, Small Farm sells carrots to Derby Ridge Farm in Stow, plus lettuce and other vegetables to a few local restaurants, including Nancy’s Air Field Cafe and Emma’s Cafe in Stow and La Provence in Concord.
Small Farm doesn’t pay the bills. In fact, Dwight’s 401K covers the payroll. It’s a lot of work. Dwight often puts in 14 plus hour days when most people his age are retired (he turned 75 in September). Both Barbara and Dwight are outside no matter what the weather brings from spring to fall. So why do they do it? “It’s educational,” Dwight says. “We get exercise, I get to collect tractors. She gets to talk to people.” Barbara laughs. “I love the people. And the children. I adore the children.”
“Learning to farm has been trial and error,” Barbara says. “I think we’ve been blessed. God ministers to people through us. Through such beauty, such lushness, and such peace and quiet. People really feel that.”
“And a lot of people like it,” Dwight says, and Barbara agrees. “We get so many commendations. People loving it, and saying it’s the best place they’ve ever been. It’s very rewarding. There’s this warm feeling that develops between you and your customers. It’s just wonderful. They’re like old friends.”
Barbara can usually be found at the farm stand or nearby, showing visitors the best way to pick a tomato or cut a sunflower. Dwight doesn’t mingle as much with the customers, but you can see him in the distance, driving the pickup truck or one of his tractors around the farm.
You’ll recognize Barbara and Dwight by their logo. She’s the one with short, straight dark hair. He’s the one with the white beard. A simple logo for a simple, small farm.
This story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.
Tara Taft loves to explore new and especially hidden places. She is author of a travel memoir, The Tucker—Tyler Adventure, and is a frequent contributor to Edible Boston. When she’s not writing, you can find her riding her bike to a local farmers market or baking something gluten free. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.